If Music Be The Food Of Love
A/N: SK/GL! Erik, over four years after Susan Kay's book, only he's somewhat younger and not about to disintegrate.
Christine is pale blonde. I am imagining her as played by Gwyneth Paltrow.
Anne, an OC, and yes, an OW, is a darker blonde. I am imagining her as played by Laetitia Casta, only 10-20 pounds heavier. She is a country woman; her sections are written as she would put things. She is not stupid— she was just not very well educated. She became an unwed mother at the age of 16, and is now 20. If you want to label her a Mary-Sue, you need not bother to tell me so.
Don't own Erik Sr., Darius, Nadir Khan, Marie Perrault, Madeleine, Christine, or Raoul, and I especially don't own Ayesha, because nobody can own a cat, not even a fictional one. If I use or mention any other characters from SK or GL, I disclaim ownership of them also.
I do own Anne, Erik Jr, Rosalie, Claude, Amelié, Sophie, Minna, the Hussenot family, and the entire Norbert clan (Anne's family) of lace-makers from Alençon. They are loosely based on my late grandmother's family. She was one of eleven children.
PG-13 for safety. If things get heated up above that, I'll warn you.
Some material may be inappropriate for vegetarians and dieters. Any recipes or cooking tips given will be real and accurate.
"If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die—"
Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare.
They say that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, which just goes to show they're as confused about anatomy as they gen'rally are about everything else, unless they're talking about instructions on how to stab him, in which case a better way is up and under the ribcage.
Anyway, we do not live in a perfect world and it is foresighted and useful for a young woman to become proficient at those arts which will keep a weak-willed man from straying. Learning to cook is also useful….
Nanny Ogg's Cookbook, Gytha Ogg, (through Terry Pratchett)
Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.
Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, (through A. Conan Doyle)
Minna gasped, put down the tin of cake flour, and tugged at my elbow. It is not right to call her a half-wit, for although she is not bright, and cannot speak, nor read and write, she understands me right well and I have no better kitchen maid. She pointed to the back of the shelf, where a spinner big as a hazelnut crouched in terror.
"Oh?" I said. "Well, he don't belong in here." I swept my handful of parsley into the stock pot, got a drinking glass, which I upended over the poor lost thing, and slid a bit of pasteboard under. It beat at the glass with four of its eight legs.
"Do not fret, now." I told it, though it could not know nor care what I said, and said "Dearheart?" to my son, who was weaving a lattice crust over the last of the cherry tarts with his clever hands.
"Yes, Mam?" he piped up.
I set the glass with the spider down in front of him. "When you're finished with the tart, would you take him out and let him go by the stables, where he'll have lots of flies to eat?"
"Ooo!" My boy is in love with every living thing in all the world. "Can I keep him, Mam? I'd catch him flies to eat."
"No. Catching flies is good work, but it's his work, not yours. And—" for I well know that without a task or a purpose given him, I will not see my son again before nightfall, nor the glass again ever, "you can come back by way of the springhouse and bring me a glass of fresh cold water."
"Yes, Mam." He finished the weaving and pinched the edges of pastry together. I gave him a buss on the cheek, and he smiled and went out into the sunny afternoon.
"You won't get your water for half-an-hour." predicted my brother Claude. He took the rolls out of the bake-oven, and slid the tarts in. "He'll have to visit every nag in the place, meet the new guests' horses, bid goodbye to the departing ones, climb up into the hay loft to see if Miao's kits have opened their eyes, come down by way of the mulberry tree, build a dam across the stream, and look under every rock, along the way." His voice broke halfway through his speech, and he flushed. Claude is thirteen, and feels it something awful.
"True—but I'll get my glass of water." I took Sophie a bowl of beans for snapping.
"Ah—thank'ee" she said. Sophie is near eighty now, and while the rest of her is not strong anymore, her hands still are good.
She sits by the stove in cold weather, by the door in hot, and pits cherries, snaps beans, and hulls strawberries for me, and other suchlike small work. She sat by my son's cradle, rocked it endless hours, and talked to him, told him stories, all the first year we were here at the inn, so I could go about my work. I had never a fear that she'd put a pillow over his face. For that, I shall clothe, feed and house her until she dies, and see her buried proper when that time comes.
Erik burst back into the kitchen, with a drippy full glass in his hand. "Mam, there's a new cat in the garden, and she's so thin!"
"Happens the stock won't miss a few scraps of beef." I smiled at him. "Mind you, mince it fine, now."
He got a paring knife from the rack, and ladled up some bits to chop. There are not many mothers as would trust a child not yet four with a paring knife, but there are not many children like mine. He would not hurt himself. As he cut up the meat, he told me how friendly the new cat was—cats can tell a soft touch a mile off—, and added, "She has blue eyes, and they go like this." He crossed his eyes, which is a thing he ought not do.
My mother would have said, Don't do that, your face'll freeze that way, but that is not a thing I will ever say to my son. "Blue's a lovely color for eyes." His eyes and mine are blue. "What do she look like, else?" A white cat with blue eyes is stone deaf, like as not, and once we had a deaf kitten. He did not hear a coach coming in the carriage way, one day, and my Erik cried himself sick over that crushed scrap of fur. I did not need that happening again.
"She's got a dirty face. And paws and ears and tail-tip. The rest of her is the color of—whole wheat flour."
"She need a bath, then?" May I be spared washing a cat, I prayed.
"No-she's washing her own face." He filled a chipped dish with the meat and put the knife in the sink like a good lad.
"Well, you may feed her and play with her, but since you're out in the garden, see that you weed the lettuces and the melons." My kitchen garden is neat and pretty, with sixteen square plots laid out as nice as you please. Each plot has four different eatables planted in it, checkerboard-like, and all is hedged about with good-smelling herbs, like lavender, rosemary, lemon balm and thyme. I am very proud of it. It looks like God's best bed quilt.
"Yes, Mam." When my son is kissed, he lights up with such a happiness as would make the world forget what's wrong about him, so I do it often.
"How's the puff paste coming?" I asked my niece Amelié. Amelié was laboring over the first batch of puff paste I have allowed her to try to make alone. It is not easy, even with a slab of good marble to turn it on, and with ice-cold butter to fold into it. The secret is that the paste should have little flakes and bits of butter left solid in it, so when it is baked the butter melts and leaves pockets. This first batch of hers would probably not be fit for anything but pig feed, but some things can only be learned by doing.
Puff paste has more uses than I can name. In the morning it is the croissant by your cup of coffee, which can be filled with fruit or cheese or chocolate. It can be cut into rectangles and layered with pastry cream for a Napoleon, or with fish and sauce to be a coulibiac, or with mushrooms and beef for a Wellington. It can be vol-au-vents or bouchées; savory or sweet. It is not possible to make a twelfth-night galette without it.
When it is well done, it is as light as air and falls apart almost like a handful of dry snow when you bite it. When it's poorly made, you might as well chew boot leather. I make it every other day and I could make twice as much and never a shred would go to waste. I could sell apricot pinwheels and cheese straws by the dozen to the railway-layover crowd who haven't time for a sit-down meal.
Amelié wiped her hand across her brow. She was floured to the eyeballs. "It inn't so easy as you make it look."
"I started when I was your age—no more nor eleven. When you've been making it nine years, it'll be as easy for you. Sprinkle it with a bit of water, and roll it out again."
The post arrived; there was a letter from her. I have come to expect a letter from her about this time every month; it means that once again, her hope for another baby is dashed by her monthly bleeding. This was not the agreement we came to—it was supposed to be one letter each, once a year, but after her little son stopped breathing at twelve weeks of age, she has written more and more often. She still has Rosalie, the golden daughter she wanted so much, but they need a son to carry on the name.
I cannot help but feel for her. I try to write back, but words don't flow on paper for me as hers do, and I haven't the time for much writing. And I have a son who reads as well as I can and wants to know all that I do. Rosalie has beguiled him somewhat. She is no more to him than a photograph of a little girl in a stiff dress, with sausage curls all over her head, looking as if she'd rather tear off and play, but she is as beautiful as an angel to him. He wants to hear about her, and how I met her mother. There lie dangerous waters; I do not tell him falsehoods if I can help it, yet a whole web of falsehoods surrounds the connection between our families.
"Madame?" asked Pierre Hussenot. Pierre and his family run those parts of the inn that do not fall under my governance. All that's to do with food is my business. "There's three come to stay in the guest cottage. One's an invalid, and two are Mohammedans; Monsieur Khan wants to have a word with you about meals."
The man who followed him into my kitchen was tall and dark. "Monsieur Khan—this is Madame Anne Touchet, our cook."
"Madame." He made a small bow to me. When he straightened, he might have been talking to me, but his gaze fell about a foot short of my eyes. "If I might—might, ah,"
Men have been addressing my bosom rather than my face since that I was twelve, but his eyes were popping more than most. I chanced a glance down. Well, it was hot in my kitchen, the string of my blouse wasn't tied and I'd been sweating. "Perhaps we had ought to step out into the garden." I suggested. "It's perishing hot in here." The guest cottage is at the bottom of the garden, so he'd be halfway home after.
"As you wish, Madame Touchet." I tied my strings as he went out before me.
"M'sieu Hussenot tells me one of your party is sick." I prompted him. "I've often cooked for invalids. I'll send over nourishing broths, baked custards—nothing but what's calm, strengthening, and easily digestible."
"He will eat but little of it, I fear. But yes, whatever you think will be best for him. You will not be offended if he spurns it?"
"Seeing as he's ill, no. But if a man can still swallow, he can swallow my madrilène and my puddings—is somewhat wrong?" His eyes were popping again, but not at my bosom. I turned to see what had caught him, but I knew before that. A man's first look at my boy will always take him that way.
"That—child." His voice came out all strangled-like.
"That's my son Erik. He is an ugly little boy, and I won't claim otherwise, but he is mine. He won't bother you or your friends. If you're afraid the sight of him will do your sick friend an injury, you can move to rooms in the house, if you like."
"Erik. Your son's name is—Erik."
"The cat he is playing with belongs to my friend who is sick." Erik had a long stalk of grass, and was twitching it for the moggy, who wiggled her hindquarters and pounced. His laughter sounded like a lark or a wren singing its heart out over the garden.
"He won't hurt her none. He'd sooner cut off his hand. If he hadn't ought to play with her, I'll tell him so, but perhaps you'd best keep her indoors with a dirt tray to do her business in."
"No—I am sure it is all right."
I looked at the man again. His face proclaimed that he'd had a shock, more so than most that see my boy. "You all right?"
"Yes, Madame. Our meals—mine and my manservant's—should be made without pork or alcohol, and we do not eat any dish made with blood. Of course we will pay extra for your trouble. Here is something on account of it." He held out a few franc coins.
"I don't take tips. Any extra fees will be on your final reckoning." I was a bit short with him, but he was goggling at my lad still, more than is called for in a man of his years.
"I am sorry. I did not mean to cause offense."
"Then you should look at me when you speak to me." I answered, as pleasant as sugar.
"I'm sorry. You do not have him wear a mask? Many would." He spoke quietly, which soothed me a touch. It showed he cared if Erik heard him or not.
"Many are damn fools then. A mask would go and make a secret and mystery about his face, and there'd be all manner of trouble. If he goes about in the plain light of day as he does, he's just a little boy. More ugly than is common, true, but that's our concern and none of yours. Invalid foods for your invalid friend, then, and dishes made without pork, blood or spirits of any kind for you and your man. You'll not object to eating what he eats, or shall I do something finer for you, seeing as you're the master?"
"No—I will eat whatever you prepare for us both."
"Will you be wanting something now to tide you over? Supper will be at seven, this time of year."
"Thank you. We have been provided with beverages; that will be enough until then."
"You're welcome. Your meals will be sent out to you; that comes with the cottage rental. Now you'll excuse me. I've much to do." I gave him my smallest curtsey, and turned back to my kitchen.
"Madame?" I stopped and turned to look at him again. "I crave your indulgence, and humbly beg your pardon for asking so many questions, but—for whom was your son named?"
"That's the oddest question I've heard this age."
"I—know it. Yet I ask."
"For his father. My husband." I said, and waited for the next question.
"And your husband is?"
"Not here." I turned on my heel. I was going to add a great whacking fee to his bill for that little chat.
I went back in. There was still so much to do for supper. Once a week in May, I make a special dish—Starlings.
Tonight was the night for them. I have the farmers around here kill them, clean and dress them, then bring them to me before they've been dead two hours—I can tell if they've been dead longer. Then I salt them, sprinkle chopped herbs on them, like chervil and thyme, baste them with sherry and melted butter, and grill them with sage. I serve them on a dish of hot Indian corn mush, and charge fifty francs a dozen. I started with a hundred and twenty at a time, my first year here, and now I could easily serve six hundred and still turn people away. It's good that starlings are common and plentiful!
People come all the way from Paris on purpose for my food, all year round. The inn has been written about in magazines and newspapers. I could use more of my nieces and nephews to help out around here, but they would have to live up to my requirements, and that's not easy.
Everybody has to help with the starlings, in their own ways. I called Erik in and set him to work. I wrote the menu on the big slate for the common room, and on a dozen sheets of creamy paper for the posh dining room, and gave him the chalks and ink so he could do up nice borders for them. He never does the same design twice, and he so loves to draw. The paper menus that don't get torn or stained are in demand; all you have to do is cut out a center oval where the words were, and you have a frame for a photograph. I've started selling them to those as want them, and of course he gets the sous for pocket money.
I could not forget the guest cottage. For the Mohammedans, I grilled a shoulder of lamb with garlic and rosemary, which is so simple that's it's not really cooking, just waiting for the meat to get brown. For the sick man, I strained off some of the beef stock and added sherry and egg whites to fine it into consommé. I also baked him a custard with all the egg yolks left from making meringues, and broiled a sugar crust over top of it, a crème brulee. Only the sickest patients are not tempted by a crème brulee. It's the crust that does it; getting to tap and break it, then spoon up smooth custard and sweet crunchy melting splinters into their waiting mouth. It's like pretty underclothes—the crust makes the familiar custard more interesting.
I wish I had a use for pretty underclothes these days. But for my son's sake I live up to the pretense of an absent husband. He has a hard enough life without being labeled a bastard or a whoreson.
Once all the work was done for the moment, all the guests served, ourselves fed, the dishes gathered up by Hussenot's folk—and how I do hate to wash dishes and pans! That they do the washing-up is my favorite part of the arrangement… It was the blue hour, the quiet hour of night fall.
I went out into the garden, to learn that someone in the guest house was playing a fiddle. I never heard music like that before. It wasn't like the fiddling of our village tunesters—this was the May night made into music. I could hear the sound of the stream in it, the whinny of the horses in the stable, the smell coming off the herbs and the roses.
Erik was sitting under the first apricot tree. "Mam!" he said in an awed whisper. "Isn't it beautiful?"
I sat down next to him. "Yes. Let's listen a bit." We sat, unspeaking, unmoving, barely breathing, as the fiddle spoke without words.
When the fiddle wound down into a tired halt, he and I got up and went back to the house in silence. Some things are too deep to speak of, and this was one of them. Erik has a fiddle—I bought it for him last birthday, and already he knows as much as old Bertrand can teach, but this sort of music was new to him. He got out his instrument, and tried a few quiet chords.
"Not now, dearheart. Minna and Amelié are up above trying to sleep. After breakfast tomorrow."
"It isn't right, anyway," he said sadly. "Do you think…?" He let his sentence trail off.
"That you could learn how to do that? Of course. Start your washing up, so's I can have my turn…But you mustn't go bothering our guest to teach you, or else I could lose our place here."
"I won't, Mam."
"I know you won't. Into your nightshirt, now. What would you like to hear tonight? Something from Madame d'Aulnoy, or a bible story? Or shall I make up something new?"
"Just—just the story of us, tonight, Maman."
"All right, then." I sat down on his bed, and tucked him in, and, yet again, began to spin for him the biggest fairy-tale of them all, the one for which he may never forgive me, for which he may even hate me, should the truth ever come out. Between this lie and my other sins, I may have to get into heaven on the strength of my cooking.
"It was more than five years ago, when I was in service in a great house near Lyons, that I met your father, Erik Touchet."
"Which is my name, too."
"Which is your name, too." At first I didn't like him, 'cause he looked so strange, but—"
"He hadn't any nose. He was very ugly." I come near to crying every time he says that, he sounds so happy, but it's part of the story for him now. It's like a prayer.
"He didn't, and he was." I responded.
"I look just like him."
"You look a lot like him. At first I didn't like him, but after a while I came to realize he was very clever, and wise, and good at all sorts of things. And that he loved me. So when he asked me to marry him, I said—Yes."
My Erik laughed out of happiness.
"Because being all those things is better than just being handsome. And we were very happy." I went on.
"But then?" he prodded me.
"But then your father had to go abroad. We neither of us knew you were going to be born. And he kissed me goodbye, and told me there was money in the bank to take care of me while he was away, enough so even if something happened to him, I'd be looked after. Then he left."
"And you were very sad."
"I was. But soon I realized I was going to have you, so I said to myself, 'All right, I've got to pull up—"
"Your stockings!" he shrieked with laughter.
"Hush, now. 'I've got to pull up my stockings and get practical. Where is the best place for us to live?'"
"And once when you were on the train, you saw our town."
"Yes, I did. I had to get off and change trains, and I took a walk and saw everything, and I stopped here at this inn for a bite to eat."
"And the food was just awful!" He makes a face.
"The food was just awful! The Boulangers owned it, then. Monsieur Boulanger couldn't cook! Madame Boulanger couldn't cook! None of the little Boulangers could cook! It was such a pretty inn, and right near the railway, but nobody here could cook! I remembered this place, and after you were born, while you were just a tiny baby who had colic and cried all day and all night and never let me sleep…"
He makes a sad little moue at that, although I make a joke of it. He so fears displeasing me.
"I thought, what if they needed a cook? So I asked and found out the inn had a new owner, who did want a cook who could cook, and here we are!"
"In the best inn in the world!"
"In the best inn in the world. And we are very happy."
"We are very happy." he repeats, and he means it.
"And now it's time to sleep. I love you, Erik." I kiss him goodnight, and make as if to leave.
"Another? Do you think kisses grow on trees?"
"No, on flowers. Two-lips!" He says the last in English. What it is to have a three-year-old who makes jokes in different languages….
"All right, then." It takes but little encouragement for him to cling round my neck and press a few dozen kisses on my face.
"I love you, Mam!"
He has been busy from sun-up until now. He has raked the gravel in the yard, fed the chickens, gathered the eggs, picked beans with me, folded clean towels, checked over the butcher bills with me, and practiced his sums thereby, read aloud to us while we worked in the kitchen, woven lattice crusts for a dozen pies, fed cats, weeded the garden, drawn the borders on the menus, set the table, cleared the table, listened to music with me in rapture, out in the garden, done a dozen other tasks, great and small, and now he will sleep. He has worked as hard as any of us, and he is only three. It takes all that to wear him out!
It's not as if he was working down in a coal mine, though, or in a factory without air or sunlight. He is happy.
He is happy, and I am too, as Miao in the hay. Leastways, we are right now.
A/N: Okay, to anticipate a few of your questions. Erik senior is the sick guest in the cottage, and also the violinist. Nadir is staging an intervention, and Erik is undergoing withdrawal from morphine. He won't have many more serene moments like that musical interlude, at least for a while. He will be suffering too much.
He has never laid eyes on Anne, and that story notwithstanding, she has never met him either. How, then, in the days before artificial insemination, did Erik Jr. come into being? You'll have to keep reading…
There is nothing supernatural involved, and nobody has dropped in from another universe, either.
And yes, the starlings she's talking about are the birds you know as starlings. I wouldn't recomend eating city birds, though. You don't know what they've been eating.